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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Workers ready to rumble

Workers ready to rumble

All of us in this region know that now is not the time for vague promises of better things to come.

So does that mean Southeast Asia can no longer look forward to the future that is to come? Certainly not!

But what about the workers, you cry.

Yes, indeed, what about the workers? It is a conundrum that neither Fred Kite nor any manager or minister seems able to answer.

That was reinforced on Friday, when the UN released a report showing the pitiful rise in workers’ wages over the past five years has failed to keep up with inflation.

In other words, while there have been marginal improvements in living standards, the gap between rich and poor has widened, and the workers are still getting shafted.

The UN report urged governments with large fiscal deficits, such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to avoid squeezing their labour force with a “race to the bottom” in wages.

Few will heed the warning, because few officials care much about the exploited plebs in textile sweatshops, assembly plants, service industries, building sites, abattoirs and plantations.

Recent incidents, however, suggest a tipping point may have been reached and that attention will need to be paid or else there’s going to be serious trouble.

Across the region, from Cambodia to Indonesia to Myanmar, from Malaysia to Singapore to Vietnam, the toiling masses have started to become disgruntled and a shade stroppy.

It’s about time, of course, but how to respond?

Singapore once thought it had the answer. After exterminating independent trade unions, it set up the monopolistic National Trades Union Congress to keep the peons in place.

The NTUC is government-controlled, so the right to strike is severely restricted, even if wages and conditions are abysmal, as they often are for migrant labourers.

In the industrial heartland of Kaki Bukit, in eastern Singapore, there are vast sheds housing many of the country’s 700,000 foreign non-domestic workers.

Having once clandestinely entered these shameful dorms, let me just say they make Mrs Melder’s doss house in Kolkata seem palatial.

It was from such pits of despair that 200 bus drivers and construction workers staged Singapore’s first strike in three decades last week over poor pay and unhygienic digs.

The government called it an illegal stoppage that constituted “a threat to public order” and sent in the riot squad, who broke up the demo. The workers were variously jailed, fined and deported.

Belatedly, their employers (none of whom were arrested, of course) agreed to fumigate the bedbug-infested dorms and investigate unpaid back wages and other grievances.

But let’s not single out Singapore. Kaki Bukit shocked me, but it paled beside the unbelievable environment at Monywa’s giant copper mine in northwest Myanmar.

Last week, when thousands of Monywa citizens demonstrated against land seizures, pollution and inhuman conditions around the mine, they were set upon by security forces. Many, including monks, were badly injured.

Meanwhile, Indonesian workers in Java held concurrent protests calling for inflation-linked wage increases, the enforcement of labour laws and the revision of a ban on contract jobs.

Unfazed, the union of bosses, politely termed the Indonesian Employers’ Association, warned workers to back off and said 10,000 jobs could be lost when a long-overdue minimum-wage hike is invoked in January.

There have also been hundreds of strikes across Vietnam, especially in factories run by South Korean and Taiwanese owners, as workers protest against scandalously low wages and terrible working conditions.

The same has happened in many of Cambodia’s garment factories.

So the message is clear: The workers are not all right, Jack. Quite the opposite: they’re angry and ready to rumble.

Contact our regional insider Roger at rogermitton@gmail.com

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